The inconsistent treatment of readers’ advisory (RA) as a core service for adults in public libraries has led to inconsistent demand for quality RA education, which has further led to inconsistent service. Jennie Maas Flexner noted as far back as 1934 that the “need for specialized education is as evident in [readers’ advisory] work as in every other department of the library.” This is still true, and the need is still not being met. Two gaps prevent RA from being taught in a way that would make it the core public library service it should be.
Practitioners and academia
For decades there has been a chasm between academia and RA practitioners, starting with the lack of attention to RA in MLIS programs. Jessica E. Moyer and Terry L. Weech found in 2005 that “students who plan to become public librarians graduate without the knowledge of how to serve fiction readers, the largest borrowing group in the public library.” A 2013 LJ survey found that though all surveyed libraries offered at least one form of RA to patrons, 42 percent of MLIS graduates had not encountered any material on RA in their studies.
In addition, practitioners and academics are increasingly approaching RA differently. Though many practitioners teach the appeal and genre-based method of RA, as promoted by Joyce Saricks’s classic Readers’ Advisory Service in the Public Library (ALA Editions), some academics are exploring new methods. In 2013, Keren Dali called for “a radically different approach to appeal in the practice and teaching of RA” and proposed a new method with which practitioners can experiment. Soheli Begum’s research into escapist reading also indicates the need for “rethinking traditional formats of advisory” and how it is taught. In 2008, David Beard and Kate Vo Thi-Beard posited that “emphasis on the description of the book is a weakness in the current model of [RA]” and offered questions beyond “What’s the last great book you read?” to RA practitioner arsenals. Much academic research on adult readers now happens outside of MLIS departments. Little of this has penetrated the informal and self-directed RA education on which so many depend.
Practitioners and administrators
The same LJ survey that found that all public libraries offer RA to patrons also reported that 23 percent of staff worked for a library that provided no RA training or support, with 62 percent depending on self-directed training. This survey also noted that only 34 percent reported on-site staff training, and only nine percent of libraries had full-time readers’ advisors on staff. Perhaps, then, it’s unsurprising that in the past 20 years, Anne K. May et al., Kenneth D. Shearer, and Cynthia Orr all say that, according to their secret shopping of public libraries, RA service to adults is still unevenly offered and of inconsistent quality. Many library staff provide RA with little education, relying instead on enthusiasm to carry the day, in part because few library directors see RA as a skill that should be developed.
A 2011 OCLC survey of public library members identified clear priorities and initiatives for library directors, none of which were RA. Some—demonstrating library value to funders, ebooks, visibility of library collections, literacy—can be and are addressed by solid RA. Yet the gap between administrators, who can prioritize RA education, and practitioners, who can benefit from it, remains.
Closing the gaps
The importance of books and reading in the lives of our adult patrons is often taken for granted, and our profession’s resistance to being pigeonholed as book warehouses prevents us from seeing how many other community needs can be filled by readers’ advisors. As public libraries experiment with new roles, there are fresh opportunities for library staff who are RA-trained to make an impact on patrons’ lives.
Promoting RA education empowers librarians with the skills to develop lasting relationships with patrons and to build community. In addition to supporting what Begum would call the “transformative” role of reading, quality RA can supplement other core services. Dali’s earlier research found that RA can be used in public libraries to serve immigrants better, and Katie Dunneback contended in 2011 that the increased growth of ebooks creates a new realm for advisory. An increase in RA education improves service not only to avid readers but also to other patrons the library wants to reach.
The potential of RA to affect adult library users positively nationwide is incredible, but only if RA education can meet the challenge, in both practitioner and academic environments. NoveList’s Duncan Smith once wrote, “Rather than rethinking [RA] education, we need to rethink our profession’s attitude toward reading.” Let’s start there and work on closing these gaps forever.